Autumn Equinox: gathering gold

(all images by Kate Kennington Steer) 

As a photographer and visual artist I sub-consciously take note of the level, type, angle, and colour of light throughout the day, month, season, year.  Yet in the past few months I have been trying to be more attuned to my feelings about the changing light rhythms that make up different cycles.  In particular I’ve been paying attention to the Solstices, the Equinoxes and the cross-quarter days in between.  This year my feelings about the Autumn Equinox can be summed up in two words: ‘gathering’ and ‘gold’.  

Somewhere in my psyche my English cultural heritage associates the end of September and beginning of October as ‘harvest festival’ season, even though the agrarian calendar might show that in fact that cereal harvests are long over, and the next crop of winter wheat is ready to be sown.  There are many traditional rituals around the cutting of the last sheaf, and its grain being used to make a communal loaf or sheaf of bread for the coming festivities when all the harvests – cereal, vegetable, fruit – are completed.  And as I was thinking about the rhythm of cutting and sowing, I remembered being a child in Norfolk and seeing farmers burning the stubble in the fields.  

And suddenly, shockingly, I felt fear:  have I been cut down?  Have I been burnt utterly away?  For a moment, my fear coalesced around the word ‘gather’:  I have nothing to show for myself, there is nothing to gather, nothing to store, nothing to bring out in the coming long winter nights and reflect upon.  And it occurred to me:  perhaps the Autumn Equinox is the corrective festival a perfectionist most needs to celebrate?  For, of course, when I ask myself, ‘what do you have to show for yourself?  What do you have to share from yourself?’, below the shrieking fear, the deep-down answer comes back: lots.  

Lots of admittedly messy, unfinished, half-baked ideas, thoughts and projects; lots of acts of daily seeing, even if fewer of them than I would like were glimpsed through a camera lens; lots of words written, even if few of them are yet in a form that will make sense to anyone else; lots of doodles in sketchbooks that nobody has seen; lots of painted postcards that remain unsent.  Much of this hoard needs sharing.  Yet much of this hoard also needs ploughing back into my ground to form a rich enough humus for the next cycle of creation my Maker has in store for me.

In his book Spiritual Intelligence Brian Draper cites Mark Greene’s term ’small fruits’ to describe ‘small-scale change which can make a big difference to you and the world around you … It’s a way, perhaps, of taking stock and taking encouragement along your journey, of seeing what difference your journey is making.’ (41)  The idea of micro-changes or ‘microshifts’ has become part of business management lexicon, but I continually find it a challenge to sustain them for very long.  But something has been shifting, clarifying as I have watched the light lope across the ceiling of my bedroom these past few months: I have a very stark choice to make.  Do I want to life a fear-filled life or a creativity-filled life?  Which of these energies will take me across the next threshold of my becoming in a way which helps me flourish?  Which of these energies do I need to gather to myself?  Which of these energies do I want, need, to share with others? 

So my inner perfectionist needs to confront the language she uses.  I am not cut down.  I am not left behind, brittle, arid and useless.  I am not left a mere husk of myself after the anxieties of COVID-19 lockdown, with no sense of an opportunity to rest before the potential onslaught of whatever unknown health crises this winter might bring.  And the best counter I know to perfectionism is the redemption of gratitude: ‘I will gather you to joy’ says ‘the searcher’ in Rilke’s  poem.

I wrote a post on my blog imageintoikon in Lent reflecting on how often I need to remind myself to flex my ‘rejoicing muscles’, and I found that trying to increase my gratitude for what is present to me during the course of a day, week, month, season, year, is the key to this.  My most regular gratitude practice focuses around making what I call ‘Grace Notes’ in my journal.  But on the dark days I can only find a way to be truly thankful by digging beneath the surface stubble of my day, ’mining for gold’ as I go.  ‘Mining for gold’ can sometimes be a rather arduous form of self-examination, and it reminds me of the hard, physical labour that is involved in ‘gleaning’ after a harvest.  

In the Bible the principle of ‘gleaning’ is first laid down in Leviticus 19.9 and Leviticus 23.22.  God tells Moses that fields, vineyards and orchards are not to be harvested to the very edges or to the very tops of the trees and vines:

‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’ (Leviticus 23.22 NIV)

The principle of looking after others as being of equal importance to looking after oneself is thus deeply ingrained in the traditions of gleaning.  So I wonder, as I look for all the golds the Autumn Equinox might bring me this year, what scraps of nutrition do I especially need to pay attention to?  What do I need to gather to myself as encouragement or fuel or inspiration for the season after the Equinox?  What gold can I share with others rather than hoard it to myself?  

Ultimately, can my private, inner reflexive gratitude practice spill over into a microshift that could make a practical difference to someone else? Perhaps today’s literal equivalent of the Biblical principle of ‘gleaning’, in our city-centred, twenty-first century life, might be found in supporting ‘Food Bank’ charities?  Perhaps the Anglican Church’s recent institution of making this time of year into a liturgical season called ‘Creation Time’ might suggest ways in which I can join in with a communal celebration of God’s gifts all around us, even whilst I am mostly home-based and solitary?

I am yet to answer any of these questions I pose to myself.  But I know now what needs to characterise my celebrations of the Autumn Equinox this year: gathering, gleaning and gold.

(This post was originally written for Godspace as part of their series on ‘discernment’.)

I am green

(all images by Kate Kennington Steer)

As I mentioned in a previous post for Godspace written in 2016, I have long been fascinated by and inspired by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), not least because despite her struggles with persistent ill health she was a writer, a composer, a scientist, a preacher, a prophetic visionary, and an Abbess of two Benedictine convents; and because, for me, she personifies what I called back in 2016 ‘expressive strength in creative weakness’.  Here’s my concluding passage from that post:

It seems to me that it takes a very particular type of strong personality to be able to continue to live a creative, fruitful, flourishing life in the service of God and others; and that such a life-force is only found in those whose strength is based on a recognition of their absolute vulnerability and powerlessness.  For Hildegard this life-force came from what she idiosyncratically identified as ‘viriditas’, a ‘greening’ of the spirit that forms the innate connection between God’s goodness in the heart and God’s goodness in the earth; a connection Hildegard personifies as Grace.  ‘Greening’ is the epitome of God’s blessing to those God loves.  She who was intimately acquainted with the brittle, desert times of pain, kept writing about the necessity of greening her own, and everyone else’s, spirit by contact with and obedience to her Beloved, the Creator, the All-Powerful God.  She was determined to love her God and express that love in all the ways she knew how, despite the creative difficulties; indeed, through the difficulties.  As I struggle to find ways in which I might join every day with the Creator in creating and healing, Hildegard’s expressive, exuberant celebration of the ways in which we may all still be greened continues to echo down the centuries to encourage me this day.

During the COVID-19 Lockdown I have returned to actively thinking about viriditas as part of my ongoing #projectgreen: an intentional, slow, gradual, mindful multimedia exploration of the colour green, asking what might I learn from its associations and usages (both traditional and modern), and what do I need to notice about the presence and absence of this colour in my life at this time ?  So for example, a writing exercise in early May produced this:

I am green.  I am processed water and light.  I am spear, frond and plate.  I rustle.  I pool as pad on a pond.  I impinge upon the sky.  I am newness of life.  I am Spring.  I am calm joy.  I sigh in resurrection happiness.  I am emergence.  I drink the sunlight.  I am ribbed, veined, raised and rubbed.  I am verve, energy let loose, momentum unbound.  I am the very definition of go – go in, go on, go forward, go for it.  I am all permissive freedom.  I am unbound, the epitome of possibility, bursting from all directions, climbing up and creeping along, carpeting and clothing winter’s limbs.  I am healthiness personified – eat your greens – each vitamin a mineral crunch of fresh nutrients eager to fuel up and be away to explore.  I am a friendly embrace, universally welcomed, forcing myself into crevices, reclaiming my ground of being.  I will always be with you, even despite your best efforts to shut me out, cut me back, tamp me down.  I will return and return and return.  I am dependable. I am hope.

Yet when I repeated the same exercise in late August I wrote this:

I am green.  I am verdant abundance. I am the Great Mother’s handcrafted signpost: rich treasure lies buried beneath my rolling hills; this place will bring forth goodness.  I am the colour of oxygen, the earth’s lung, seen from space.  Even in my darkest, such velvety exquisite darkness that in winter’s shadows you might confuse me for black, I display the everlasting.  My ancient forms are the stuff medicines are made of, curing the most pernicious of ills.  At my brightest, freshly sprung, even in the weakest glance of sunlight, heart-songs lift up unbidden.  I am returning, I am recurring.  I am the very symbol of health, of growth, of new beginnings.  Benedict’s ‘begin again’ is my motif, engraved into every vein, artery, stem and forest crown.

And yet, when I turn sickly, edged, blotched and patched at my most yellow, I am envy. I lurk within the poison of comparison.  I am uneasiness, queasiness, nauseousness, another symbolic messenger, urging you to turn away from this place.  I might turn opaque to block you out, translucent to entice you in.  Wherever I appear along the sliding scale of my endless variety, wherever I may sit amidst the tumbling together of blue and yellow, I am always, but always, worth taking note of.  For in most cultures, I am green for go, but not before you stop, wait, look.  Now: go, grow, breathe, heal.

Along the way, I have taken note of when green appears in the books I study, the poems I read, the documentaries I watch.  So, for example, I found Keren Dibbens-Wyatt writing on ‘Mint’ in her wonderful Garden of God’s Heart:

Such tender tips of lively greenness, your optimism rubs off at the smallest touch, and life even smells different.  Possibilities open up and the now tangible tangents of our future days seem to start closer to where we stand.  One aroma, one change of the fickle wind’s direction, and everything could be different, could be better.  Let it be so.  Let your soft leaves be for the healing of the nation’s hopes.

My Mum introduced me to Gideon Heugh’s poetry collection Devastating Beauty, and in ‘A Prayer’ he pleads:

Let the air be thick

with the spirit of green, slow things;

let their careful dream-light fill me,

pushing out what the world has put there.

Then in a documentary about one of my favourite painters Howard Hodgkin, I listened to Seamus Heaney say that Hodgkin’s work put him in mind of ‘The Trees’ by Philip Larkin (a poet I have read since I was a teenager).  Heaney recited:

The trees are coming into leaf 

Like something almost being said; 

The recent buds relax and spread, 

Their greenness is a kind of grief. 

Is it that they are born again 

And we grow old? No, they die too, 

Their yearly trick of looking new 

Is written down in rings of grain. 

Yet still the unresting castles thresh 

In fullgrown thickness every May. 

Last year is dead, they seem to say, 

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh. 

Larkin’s line,’Their greenness is a kind of grief’ pinpoints an association that has been humming through my writings this summer, as I have charted the Sun’s arc, and marked moments of particular turning and potential thresholds of revelation.   I realise that, as my attention has shifted through the building of light and its affect on the intensity of greens surrounding and greeting me in my Mum’s garden, that once I was past the zenith of the Summer Solstice, I have been looking at green in a (literally) different light, as darkness begins to make its presence felt round the edges of each day as the peak of the season passes. It sounds so obvious to say green is not a homogeneous entity, a single universally understood ‘colour’.  Nor, of course, is the light by which we see ‘colour’.  My late Summer light is not the same even across the northern hemisphere, let alone the light experienced on other continents enjoying different seasons.  Something of this found its way into ’blank green’, a poem found from the words of my journaled reflections on this collage I made:

and suddenly there is no such thing  

as a blank green

see the paper crinkled by blued glue into 

precipitous mountain top passes

and plunging crevasses the shape of a missing 

plate framing bokehed sun shapes 

masking whatever is currently unseen

glimpse rust flakes becoming moss trails over flocked rocks

inviting me to clamber into depths of evergreen

rich darkness enfolding me in forest 

hear its promise to hold me in pined perfume

setting me down on the winding track into untold lostness 

or perhaps only as far as the blue pool

where my yesness continues to echo off sunbaked

clay banks and the Spirit’s hovering ripples water

in a constant play of eddy and still in delight

unhesitating I plunge along the ridge of upturned leaf

stirring minute hairs freed from dew

parting to reveal a stippled pathway of midgreens 

leading me on past the comfort of High Windows

and Larkin’s words of baptism in light

over the whale’s crustacean enhanced hide

onto the uneven terrain of the seabed itself

where murk and shadow disrobe what light 

may veil 

until I am spouted upward propelled into sky 

until a rail steadies me 

onto a look out over the aura borealis

a swirl of pea green against unimaginable layers

of receding blueback purpled at the edges

until returning to present I am pierced again 

by the stripes of the tongued plant

(though lacking a mother-in-law how can I know

its’ true speech?) I traverse the hinterland of understanding

as it dips into hollows of familiar yellow and dances along

blazing minty ice cream heat heights 

reaching past the softmeadow grass and the friable hayfield 

into unexplored tropics extended fans and 

upside down paintbrush trees mirrored

in jewelled swimming pools transfigured emerald

against a jungled sky 

until here in this coolness

here where I am overshadowed by such unfamiliar shapes

here may I rest

This kind of welding of written and visual expression is something that speaks intently to me (as the name for my blog imageintoikon suggests).  It is the path I wish to explore in future works, even if for the moment I needs must be content with an A4 collage made in bed, doodles made beside scribbles in a journal that is almost never beyond arm’s reach.  Again, this brings me back to the tensions that Hildegard lived with.  The reach of her ambitions were equally tempered by persistent ill health, and yet, her trusting perception of viriditas beyond the surface of all things, is what helps me, hundreds of years later, see the ‘greening power of God suffusing all life and creation’:

One of her great gifts was insight into what she called viriditas, or the greening power of God, the life force at work in all of creation. This central creative principle was key for Hildegard in understanding the vibrancy of her soul and her work.  Viriditas is the force sustaining life each moment, bringing newness to birth.  It is a marvellous image of the divine power continuously at work in the world, juicy and fecund … The prophet Isaiah writes that “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Is 35.1-2)  This abundant blossoming is the provenance of viriditas.  We are called to wander through the desert tending to the abundant gifts of viriditas, the creative life-force of everything alive.  Hildegard’s wisdom is for living a life that is fruitful and green and overflowing with verdancy.  She calls us to look for fecundity in barren places … The “ greening” of the area where she lived is powerful.  She was a landscape mystic, meaning that the geography of her world was a means of ongoing revelation into the nature of God … The sacred is the quickening force animating and enlivening the whole world, including our own beings.  The flourishing of the world around Hildegard was the impetus for her to embrace her inner flourishing … This is what Hildegard of Bingen could perceive beyond the surface of things: she saw the greening power of God suffusing all of life and creation.  This came to be a primary principle of discernment – how green was my soul, how green was my community?  What was causing dryness and barrenness?

(original emphases) (Christine Valters Paintner, Illuminating the Way, 161-2, 164, 170)

Hildegard explored this “greening power” in every manifestation she could imagine.  As a herbalist and physician she wrote extensively on ailments and complaints of the physical as well as spiritual body.  A cure for scrofula might include a paste made from earthworms, because they came from the same green earth which is saturated with the life-force of viriditas.  Or she might use emeralds (in the twelfth century considered the most precious of all jewels), specifically because they had sucked up all the greenness of the earth that created them, so she used them as an element of a cure for diverse ills such as epilepsy, migraine or pains in the heart.

In one of her books of visions, the Liber vitae meritorum, Hildegard receives a dialogue between two characters: Heavenly Joy and Worldly Sadness.  In the opinion of Heavenly Joy, Worldly Sadness is sad because she does not ‘observe the sun and moon and stars and all the decoration of the greenness of the earth and consider how much prosperity God gives man with these things’.  By contrast, of herself Heavenly Joy says:

‘I possess heaven, since all that God created, and which you call noxious, I observe in its true light.  I gently collect the blossoms of roses and lilies and all greenness in my lap since I praise all the works of God, while you attract sorrows to you because you are dolorous in all your works.’

Hildegard’s viriditas reminds me to notice the gifts I am given in the ordinary details of my life around me.  Viriditas reminds me that the Spirit always waits in readiness to ‘green’ my soul’s barren places and our planet’s damaged earth.  There is always hope within viriditas. In the action of the Spirit’s ‘greening’ I am becoming who God longe for me to be.  In the light that is itself a gift, I am called to notice and collect together the incidents of greening around about me, like where ‘moss trails over flocked rocks/ inviting me to clamber into depths of evergreen/ rich darkness enfolding me in forest/ hear its promise to hold me in pined perfume/ setting me down on the winding track into untold lostness’.  The Spirit’s greening invites me to open my eyes, to see where the Spirit ‘sets me down’ to find even more green, and though at first I may appear surrounded by ‘lostness’, the ongoing greening of my soul promises always to lead me into the heart of God’s calling for me.

So perhaps this is the key to both viriditas and #projectgreen: they symbolise the continual flow of emergence and re-emergence of gratefulness in me, which inexorably leads me to pause to praise my Maker the Great Artist, with thanksgiving in my heart; before I move on, powered by viriditas, into the day God lays before me, welcoming whatever it may bring.  Today, using Hildegard’s words of praise of the Holy Spirit, I ask that viriditas will bless us this day, and all the days to come:

Out of you clouds

come streaming, winds

take wing from you, dashing

rain against stone;

and ever-fresh springs

well from you, washing

the evergreen globe [terra viriditatem].

(From ‘O ignis Spiritus Paracliti’ (trans Barbara Newman Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations, 148-151))

[A shortened version of this post can be found on the Godspace blog, written as part of their season on ‘discernment’]

what is it?

(For those of you who didn’t catch this first time around on other social media platforms, this post was originally published by Godspace on 5.8.20 as part of their season on the theme of ‘Uncertainty’.  I apologise it has taken me so long to post here!) (all images by Kate Kennington Steer)

I have lived with uncertainty for so long.  I never know how much energy the next day will bring, whether I will be able to speak, to move out of bed, to get dressed, to self-propel my wheelchair, to feed myself, to listen to a friend, to prioritise playing with paint and print and photos.

I am better than I used to be at accepting the temporary limits my body imposes, and at adapting to the limits that might shift at any moment of the day, imposing rest, or demanding a complete cessation of everything in the collapse which a seizure brings.  But sadly, I must confess I am not a patient person.  My inner perfectionist stamps her  foot, my inner critic screams venomously about my inadequacies, my inner taskmistress ominously cracks her whip.  My neglected artist child gears up for a full-on tantrum.  And yet, I know that the counterbalance to this internal self-punishment is to look out – up or down, it doesn’t matter – and flex my rejoicing muscles.  For there is always something to be grateful for in my present, something praiseworthy will always be right in front of me.  God is always in my details.   Presence is always assured, and this moment of connection with thanksgiving is always certain and concrete.

The most accessible way for me to reconnect with the Giver is through my contemplative photography practice acts of daily seeing.  It reminds me where I am rooted, not just through its subject matter, which often focuses on what I see as the glory in the things others overlook, but also through my breath, through my technical precision or experimentation, through my attentiveness to waiting to receive the moment to press the shutter, through a deliberate openness to Thy Will be done in this moment.

The images I receive in this way often reflect my interest in obscurity, in layers, in essences, in what is unclear, in Wabi Sabi, in through a glass darkly’.  Out of my contemplation of these themes, many of the photos I offer up as contemplative tools for others use distinct distortion techniques (like  using macro or zoom lenses, distancing or foreshortening, removing context, and using strange angles).  I suspect I do this in order to make the everyday unrecognisable, in order to re-appreciate the beauty and the mystery of what is before me, in order to encourage the looker to take time to see beyond the surface.  I’m not trying to hide the Godhead in mystique, but for each image to create a pause long enough to show off the God who is so much more than I ordinarily perceive.  I know my images often frustrate those whose first instinct is to ask ‘what is it?’  Yet I have found that when I ask this question, my need for such certainty, clarity, control and order normally ensures I miss the point of so much that resides in God’s Kingdom. 

Still, I don’t underestimate the acute discomfort that can come when I look at something and I don’t know what I’m supposed to think.  I can feel my whole body tense and revolt in response to the brain’s panic when it can’t recognise, name, catalogue, or signify what is in front of me.  I feel stupid.  I feel left out of the ‘inner circle’, the cognoscenti, those who must surely understand everything.  I can experience a deeply painful heart-longing for direction from the artist: what was ‘intended’ when they made this image?  Did they think of how it might feel to not ‘get it’?  Very quickly, such a lack of understanding or clarity can bring me to a lonely place, making me feel utterly isolated in my confusion. 

So often I find cry out to the Great Artist for the same kind of direction.  I feel I am so poor at discernment, and even though I try to practice listening more intently through the making of a weekly sabbath lectio collage, hearing a single ‘word’ with clarity from amongst my complicated brain chatter is more than challenging.  And even if I am able to distil out a word or phrase to mull over visually as well as prayerfully during the week that follows, I frequently find myself journalling to ask God, ‘Which direction should I face? Which of the hundred ideas I have before breakfast should I follow?  And what about the hundred ideas I had yesterday?  And the day before that? …’

As a result, I can feel rudderless.  I can feel abandoned.  Thus I have to remember again: I am powerless.  What God is inviting me to do is to let go of my driven attempts at forcing the pace from my own willpower: God is calling for me to let go deliberately and completely.  In letting go, I notice that the zeitgeist of anxiety around COVID-19 has crept under my bedroom door and is infecting me, reigniting those depressive tendencies in me that wait to rear up at the slightest provocation.  And yet: I am shielded and privileged and white and prosperous (in practically every relative sense); I am able to read and write; and I own technology which allows me to access this virtual space here at Godspace, which means access to a gifted, loving, generous community who provide me with a safe place to speak what is on my heart.  As I let go of all this, I can hear my heart whisper: What of all those who are voiceless in any or all of these ways?  How do I help them to be heard?

Perhaps resisting asking ‘what is it?’ of an image seems a strange place to start living out the values of the Beatitudes, but something in me is definite that practicing glimpsing and acknowledging the presence of the Holy in the midst of an unrecognisable mess might just provide the smallest of openings for the Spirit to slide in – and then, God knows, anything mi ght happen.  And so if I listen to that urge, rather than following the desire to impose what I define as order and ‘the answer’, I might get close to obeying the commission I sense God is asking me to fulfil:  making an epiphany of the ordinary – showing the messy, dirty, unlovely ordinary as belovedly sacred again – wherever and whenever I look.

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
clear-cut answers
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes…
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.

‘we look with uncertainty’ 

Anne Hillman

Lughnasadh season

Since writing at Beltaine, and then again at the Summer Solstice, the colours of fire have continued to dominate the photos I have received and the watercolour doodles I have painted.  Hot pinks, oranges, violets rise up, and vermillion and scarlet find their place in this inner glory-blaze.  This year, somehow for the first time, I am beginning to pay attention to these deeply saturated colour-flags, which are startling me with their ‘in your face’ demand that there is a vividness, a vivacity, a vitality in their presence here that I am generally missing, that is currently largely absent from my life and work.  Although I am a ‘light baby’, drawn to its tracking on the landscape within and without, I can no longer bear to sun myself in the way I did when I was younger and higher temperatures only exacerbate my already struggling fatigue levels.  Thus Summer has become my least favourite season, and one I have wished to hurry through in recent years. This year, through these colours that say High Summer to me, I suddenly remembered Lughnasadh, Summer’s Feast Day (August 1st or 6th depending on your tradition) and wondered what marking its colours might teach me. 

The feast of Lughnasadh traditionally marks the first cut of the grain harvests, and the grateful offering up of ‘first fruits’.  It honours Lugh, the Celtic God of Light, conjoined with the Goddess Tailtiu, the Grain Mother, whose legend claims that she was the one to clear the Irish lands so that crops could be planted. 

The Anglo-Saxon folk equivalent was known as Lammas Day, and became the day of the great summer fairs, the literal bringing first fruits to market.  Lammas feasts often cumulated in dances around ceremonial fires, as at Beltaine and the Summer Solstice.  As fans of Thomas Hardy will recognise, the Lammas fairs were also ‘hireling’ fairs, where labour for the coming weeks of full harvest would be found.  The name ‘Lammas’ finds its roots in the Old English ‘loaf-mass’.  At the feast-day Mass a ceremonial loaf of bread baked with the grain from the first sheaf of the harvest would be consecrated, pieces of which was then shared out to each member of the community to eat.  Thus the ‘fruit’ of that community returns to bless them in a very rich circle of life.

Yet Lunasadgh is more than just a traditional folk feast day, it is another cross-quarter day, marking the mid-point between the Summer Solstice  and the Autumn Equinox.  Significantly, the Celts also considered Lunasadgh a harvest season lasting roughly six weeks, and I note how those hot, vivid oranges, pinks and reds of High Summer turn into dusky hues at the edges of a flame.  They haunt the curve round the sides of plums piled in the bowl and deepen into the shades of the blueberries I receive at breakfast, sharpening into the indigo-purpled iridescence of blackberries plucked from bramble hedges under September skies.  They remind me the sun’s wheeling means gentle darkness has well and truly begun its descent.  After all, the opposite side of the season’s wheel is Imbolc and Candlemass, which celebrate the earliest signs of Spring  beginning to emerge from the February gloom.   

Now I come to think of it, perhaps it is not surprising that deep purples become the colours of Advent, that second season of Lent; the colours tendril out in connections.  And aren’t the green-tinged burnt oranges of sunflowers and ripened tomatoes which typify the Lughnasadh season, almost the complementary colours of these blued-purples of deep winter and Advent?  There are patterns here my heart leaps to explore with paintbrush in hand!  As Christine Valters-Paintner comments:

The fullness of summer’s growth has reached its peak and is now starting to wane and you can just begin to see the signs of nature moving toward her own storing up of energies for the journey inward the seasons ahead will invite. 

Just one of the invitations of High Summer then, is the knowledge that the bounty and energy of the Sun/Son is now beginning to wane. It is a time of change and shift. Active growth is slowing down and the darker days of winter and reflection are beckoning.  High Summer can have a bittersweetness that can be savoured.

And this perhaps reflects my deeper marked ambivalence to the pull of Summer: the lingering doubts that I have ‘fruited’ at all in the so-called ‘growing’ season; that I have anything that is worth harvesting and gathering and offering.  In all the celebrations of the seasonal lusciousness of fruit-bearing, in the abundance and proliferation that is at the heart of Lughnasadh, I am also only too aware that some branches might be overladen with unripened fruit, that all there is a heaviness, and I am brought low to the ground.  Perhaps now I’m down here, I can rest from all my labours here then?  And perhaps the key to welcoming the humility of being ‘brought down’, is that I can lighten the load, jettison what is now unwanted and unneeded?  Can I sense that I am being invited not to hoard but to give away all I am, even if, perhaps especially if, I do not believe I have anything to give that another would want to receive.  The Invitation relieves me of the responsibility to judge my own efforts, because Spirit is the One who gathers my harvest as I release it, and Spirit knows exactly where each grain is most needed outside of my ken. 

Perhaps this then is why the fest day of Lunasagdh has been known as the ‘Easter Day’ of the Third Lent?  Christine Valters-Paintner notes that,

In the old Irish monastic tradition, it became a custom to have three Lents. There is the traditional forty days preceding Easter, then the forty days before Christmas (coinciding with Advent) also become a season of Lenten penitence. There was also a summer Lent beginning about three weeks after Pentecost and ending with Lughnasa, so in some ways this feast also becomes a third Easter.

I am being invited to strip myself bare once again, for the good of my soul, and for the good of my community.  Perhaps this too explains the commingling of Lunasadgh season with the Irish Pilgrimage season, that time where good weather might last just long enough to make both an inner and an outer walk to a sacred place, whether mountain or holy well.  And in association with the symbolic jettisoning of all they produced, some Celtic monks embarked on a unique kind of pilgrimage called Peregrinato: ‘setting sail in a boat without rudder or oar, letting the currents of love carry them to the “place of their resurrection.” It is a journey of trust and yielding.’ (Christine Valters-Paintner)

The idea of Irish Pilgrims setting out to scale the the Mountain tops then brings me back to the last set of connections that surround Lunasadgh: it’s ‘coincidence’ with the Feast of Transfiguration on August 6th, the revealing of the ‘true self’ of Christ to his disciples Peter, James and John at the summit of a mountain.  The disciples are given clear sight to recognise Jesus as the Son of God, and fleetingly, before they fall to the ground, to look full in the face of his Glory.  I wonder if perhaps rather than the marking the occurrence of Christ’s miraculous ‘quick-change’ moment this summer, it is this miracle of clear sight that I most need to embrace in this Resurrection season?  

The High Summer sun can blanch and bleach objects of their colour, and other ways of seeing are required to receive the revelation of the myriad hues that are presented before me in this moment, day and season.  And I cannot help but smile, that for all my anxieties and fears about what the coming seasonal darkening might bring, inside and out, it is ironic that in High Summer light I often require shaded ways of seeing at this time of the year in order to see the ‘true’ outlines of what shares my consciousness at this time and place.

As so often, my prayer for this season rises up: ‘O Lord, transfigure my seeing’.  

O Lord, give me the Grace to say with the poet Rainer Marie Rilke, ‘I find Your trace in all things, in all’ (Book of Hours).

standing still for solstice

(all images Kate Kennington Steer)

I am drawn to light, of all kinds, in all shapes.  I am pulled towards the symbols and manifestations of the Great Light.  And yet, paradoxically, through chronic ill health, I am often dragged into the most shadowed places within.  The darknesses of depression are a constant companion lurking not far from my surface, but this very presence of darkness also provides a constant metaphor for my seeking of the Holy.  I long to behold the face of God in these places where, as Barbara Taylor Brown summarises, ‘Dark is not Dark to God’.  Over the years it has become clear that in order to examine the nature of Light I often need to stand still in a place of contrasting, but corresponding, shadow.

As I come to the time in the annual calendar when I can join the millions reaching back down the centuries to mark this summer’s Solstice, I find myself contemplating how the roots of the word ‘solstice’ might illuminate a continued Covid-19 lockdown for my parents and I, as we continue to shield one another.  Solstice is derived from the Latin root words sol (Sun) and sistere (to stand still).  As a contemplative photographer, Sol is often my sole subject, as I play with perceptions of things others often overlook, as I draw attention to the revelation of Joy in a colour, or Peace in a shape.  I seek out the places where, in my own immediate context, the Sun has made herself visible, and by Grace, can be encountered in the shrivelling of a leaf as much as in the blooming of a daylily. 

Just as over the last few years I have learnt to welcome and accept the gifts of midwinter through celebrating the winter Solstice, the shortest day, as ‘Blue Christmas’, so I am aware of a balancing need to recalibrate my appreciation of the longest day.  Noticing how light passes by and through me when the earth’s axial tilt towards the sun is at its greatest (in relation to the northern hemisphere), is not something to which I normally consciously remember to pay attention.  Perhaps this is because I associate the summer Solstice so strongly with seeing the dawn, and normally, seeing dawn is problematic for me.  Dawn is indicative of the fact I haven’t been able to sleep and is a sign of a rough day ahead, rather than what I long for it to be: a purposeful invitation to rise up with energy to enter the new day’s beginning.   

I have long been fascinated by the mystery of Solstice rituals and myths surrounding Stonehenge, awed by ancient practices and connections.  I am drawn towards the idea of celebrating seasonal cycles, and making my own thanksgiving rites so that I do not take the sun’s blessing on the earth for granted.  Stonehenge’s alignment of certain stones in certain lights at particular moments of the year offers a thread of connection back to my Neolithic ancestors who seem to have been drawn to the place as a sacred spot to honour their ancestors in their turn.  I am drawn towards the stones themselves, particularly those which literally become ‘ringing rocks’, mined in the far west of Wales, a land where some of my own ancestors were born.  These Welsh ‘bluestones’ have old legends of healing attached to their peculiar acoustic properties, so it’s not difficult for me to make imaginative leaps, seeing how varying ritual alignments of light might bring shifts in meaning through thanksgiving to healing to blessing.  For obvious reasons, being healed by the Shining One is one of my prayers of longing.

As I wrote at Beltane, the metaphor of fire has kept cropping up for me throughout the Resurrection season so perhaps this year, if I cannot get up at sunrise, I might join in with another Solstice tradition and light a fire at sunset?  Hildegard of Bingen saw fire as the element associated with the South, and so with abundance, with energy, with power, with passion, and ripening. Fire could be the prompt I need to align myself with these qualities in this season of my life. 

By conflating the Pagan and Christian calendars, marking Solstice (21/22 June) as the celebration of the start of summer, often became confused with St John’s Day (24 June), which marked Midsummer. During the Medieval period in England a ritual of lighting three ‘St John’s fires’ became popular, with one of these being a huge burning wheel, which was rolled downhill in a dramatic demonstration symbolising the sun’s turning.  The festivities using light and fire on St John’s Eve marked the counterpoint to those used on Christmas Eve, making literal links between the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Christ the Light-bringer, six months later (25 December).  

So my Solstice celebration this year might act like a plumb line dropped through history;  across space and time my stillness might join with that of others before the Light of the World.  Solstice might present an opportunity for me to align myself anew, so that the dawn might brighten my soul, so that the midday might give me strength in its blazing.

In the fiery heat of summer, how may I fan my kindled flames into passionate outpourings?  How might my small store of energy be amplified by the power of the Light which is infinite?  How might I allow this abundant Light to flow through me, to overflow for the good of those around me?

As I stand on the threshold of summer, the season of slow ripening, may I raise my face to absorb God’s Glory.  As I encounter the Creator, may I bow down, aligning my whole body with God’s Will.  As I am raised up by Grace once again, may I rise impassioned and envisioned, filled with light distilled from shadow, ready to serve and ready to bless:

The Lord bless you and keep you

the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you

the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

(Numbers 6.24-5 NRSV)

we each hear in our own language (Acts 2.8, Pentecost 2020)

How do I hear the Holy Spirit speak to me?  In soughing grass, in crashing wave, in a child’s cry, in an elder’s laugh?  In sunlight on my lifted face, in moonlight on my crumpled bed? In an urgent prod that begins in my gut and lies heavy on my solar plexus?  In another’s singing, in a poet’s image, in a ghostly whisper in my ear?

How about this: I hear the Holy Spirit speak to me in colour.

In the summer holidays of 2018 Creative Response encouraged my art group to work separately, but together, on #projectyellow.  Yellow was chosen because most of the group agreed it was a ‘happy’ colour, therefore it was a ‘safe’ colour for us whose fragile mental health needs nurturing care, especially during the prolonged period when the group would not be meeting.  I was blasé about the colour choice, sun and flowers sprung to mind and I was ok enough about that.   My initial reaction was I didn’t particularly like it, and didn’t choose to have much of it around me on a daily basis, but I would play with the project and use it to pray for the others in the group as I went.  I thought that was that. However, my curiosity began to kick in on the journey home from the last group session of the summer term.  Immediately on entering my flat I picked up a camera and, as an opening exercise, tried to see whether I had any yellow in my home surroundings.  It turns out there was A LOT of it about and I had not consciously perceived it before.

As I began concentrating and focussing on yellow in all its diverse shades, hues and textures, I became aware that I was getting very angry.  In fact I was becoming livd, brimming with bewildering rage of a staggering intensity.

When I took this experience to my counsellor a few days later, she led me through some word association work on the colour red.  By visualising my rapid-fire responses to its shades, hues and textures we began to see a way in which I might (just might) be able to bypass my over-active intellectual mind, and key into developing my subconscious emotional vocabulary by  concentrating on colour.

The subsequent eight week exploration into #projectyellow was difficult to say the least.  Living livid is exhausting.  I produced an awful lot of work in a wide variety of media, and although that was hugely gruelling, some part of me was aware the process was being fruitful, useful, enlightening.  For example, I stumbled over my associations between yellow and Easter, I rejected an image of God as wholly yellow, and heard my inner snob dismiss yellow as a ‘simple’, ‘too easy’ colour.

It was almost impossible to see the Glory in yellow; and for the duration of #projectyellow the Holy Spirit was mute about joy but clearly loud about anger.  Recalibrating my emotional trigger rage response to yellow is an ongoing road, but at least I can now see it freely enough to acknowledge that yellow, like any colour, is a source pure possibility, complexity and mystery.  One concrete change the project brought is that I can use yellow more freely in my painting than I did in 2018 and the wonderful work of the artist Marjolijn Thie-ter Beek has been an important part of this rebalancing appreciation journey.   

All this means I have adopted the approach of concentrating on a single colour to focus on what my emotional, spiritual, mental and physical connections with it might be. So last November, when I came out of hospital, I began #projectgrey and despite poor health this winter the Spirit enabled me to spend hours exploring its subtleties (mostly from my bed): through collage, paint, poetry, photography and journalling.

This journey drew to a natural close at the end of April and almost seamlessly transfigured into the small beginnings of #projectgreen. 

As I gaze through the lushness outside my window, I return to seeing the disciples in the dusty, baked stone upper room, in a hot city packed with religious from ‘all the nations under heaven.  I see each disciple hearing the Spirit differently, each receiving ‘as the Spirit gave them ability’, each astonishing themselves by what begins to pour from their mouths.  I see them flinging wide the shutters and streaming out of the doors with such passion, catching the attention of the tourists with their energetic performances, amazing each passerby hearing a particular, specific message through a voice pitched just for their ears…  

However much my inner artist hankers to develop her ‘voice’, honing it until she has a distinctive, instantly recognisable style, it is not in her gift: my voice can only arise out of my hearing. 

It is the Spirit who speaks to me in a unique way, in a voice created especially for me to hear. 

It is the Spirit who gives me the means by which I may make a unique response to God’s calling forth. 

It is the Spirit who gives me the nudge to leave my place of fear and security, insisting that the world needs to hear what the Spirit says through me, and you, and you, and you… 

Hearing the Spirit speak ‘my’ language is the way God asks me directly to contribute to building ‘our’ Kingdom community.

Let those who have ears to hear, listen.

furled fire (a Beltaine Birthday Blessing)

FF3A311F-F307-4DFE-B956-447D706458C3_1_201_a

Every year I wonder whether to write something to mark Beltaine, the Celtic feast which celebrates a cross-quarter day in the year’s wheel, the end of the dark half of the year and the beginning of its half of light.  I celebrate the waxing of the arc the sun’s path makes across the little slice of sky I can see from my bedroom window, lengthening the daylight, extending the twilight, elongating the stirrings before sun-up.  The mystic in me reaches back in time to dance with the Celts round their fires, hearing their circling prayers as they do so, being bound with them into the Great Wheel.  I reach back to listen to the songs of the May-day, Mary-Day, celebrations, watching young women entering into the mysteries of the holy feminine, embracing their potential to birth the Holy, to tend the sacred in the everyday, to serve the earth and all it feeds.  Amongst this cloud of witnesses, I also hear the shouts of workers banded together on Labour Day, revelling in the freedom of a ‘bank’ holy-day, their passion for justice and equality being an energy to which I could pay more heed, a demand for fair pay and right treatment fuelling an anger whose spark is still needed in so many places as we each fail to fulfil fair-trade agreements in the light of demands for our own comfort.

Such voices take on names, then grow into faces as my ancestors appear before me, my name ‘Kate’ receding back down the generations, and I thank God for those women who have gone into the making of me.  I thank their God and mine because the beginning of May marks my birthday, signalled by the beech hedges beginning to burst tight buds, when cracked, dry brown drops away to reveal such a fresh green it cause my eyes to hurt with joy.

smokebush 1 April 2020

Every year this season of another year’s uncurling brings mixed feelings, a new noticing of my own transformational ‘unfurling’ process into becoming the woman God has created me to be.  Every year the occurrence of Beltane creates in me a tremendous mix of thanksgiving joy, welling grief, and longing grace.  The paradoxical weakness of this year’s potent buds (the earth’s resurrection mirrored in me and vice versa) marks the beginning of my 31st year of learning to live with a chronic illness.  I recognise again the times I tried to push through the pain, mess and discomfort, and the periods I could do nothing but stop for a  paralysed rest.  I glimpse the ways in which I tried to seek different employment, before each career attempt was brought to a close by the next wave of demands from my body and mind.  Alongside such sadnesses, I can pick out my experience of individual days going back years by remembering the photographs I received and the images I made, knowing who I was with, and how the light smelt.  I can see favourite, and feared, places by colour.  I can note swathes of time passing by the creativity I explored, the poetry of #practicingresurrection with the community at Abbey of the Arts in 2015, the multi-media Oak Tree project when my ceiling collapsed in 2016, a summer #projectyellow marking a slide into intense depression in 2017, a painting adventure into ‘little Katie’s’ eyes in 2018, bringing a cosmic smash book on self-trust into being whilst in hospital in 2019.

There is so much to be so thankful for.   In all the gifts from darknesses that have punctuated the last 31 years there are indeed such spots of ‘bright fire’ (Bel-Taine) to celebrate and honour.  There, where the power of God was made present to my weakness and Spirit transfigured frailty into outpourings.  So as I move across this sacred timely threshold again and for the first time in the midst of all that is strange and familiar about the circumstances of COVID lockdown, I pause, praise and give thanks.  I hear again and for the first time Abba Moses ask me ‘why not become fire?’.

May my inner flame be strengthened to its fullness in bright depths of colour, may they thrill and fuel both my creativity and my compassion, so that Grace can call forth from me all that I have been designed to be just exactly for this moment in time, for whomsoever I might meet in my isolation. 

May this year’s cycle of unfurling begin.

become fire 1 2020

This article was originally written for the Godspace blog as part of their season on the theme of ‘Creation: Resurrection and New Life’, 1st May 2020.

psalms for passiontide: Easter Sunday Psalm 66.5

Whether it be in revisiting the victory song that is Psalm 118, or hearing the legends of exile recapped in Psalm 105 or 66, all of the Psalms the Lectionary nominates for Easter Day invite us to:

Come and see what God has done

(Psalm 66.5 NRSV)

These psalmists also agree that all God’s deeds up to this moment in the history of the universe have been ‘awesome’; whether people have been in triumph or in tragedy, God has remained jaw-dropping, astonishing, amazing in love and strength and Grace.

Take a good look at God’s wonders—

    they’ll take your breath away.

He converted sea to dry land;

    travelers crossed the river on foot.

    Now isn’t that cause for a song?

(Psalm 66.5-6 The Message)

What has God done for me?: been God.

What is God doing for me still?: being God.

What am I doing for God?: being who God makes me to be.  My desire (however imperfectly lived) is to allow God access to all of me, so God might ‘shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life’ (Psalm 51.10 The Message).

All I can do is be the conduit who keeps inviting you, my reader, to ‘come and see’.  Increasingly that feels like my vocation.  Come, see a wondrous mishmash of words and images that point past me to God (I hope and pray).

All I can do is encourage you to bring your curiosity alongside your intention to pause, even for just a second; to come and see and hear again, or for the first time, God’s invitation to discover to you who God is and what God might do for, and with, you.

Come and see what God has done. 

Come and see through my eyes a world where God inhabits even the smallest detail, no atom or particle is too small that is does not contain all of the wonder who is God. 

Come and see a world where darkness, despair and death are not the final word. 

Come and see who God looks like in this day, and all days.

meeting the Already. (diptych. iPhone images)

meeting the Already 1 (bl)meeting the Already 2 (bl)

psalms for passiontide: Holy Saturday Psalm 31.1-4,15,16

refuge

rock

refuge

fortress

rock

fortress

refuge

These are the images of Psalm 31.1-4, the oh-too-solid opposites of the tangled net the psalmist feels closing around him. 

On Holy Saturday, these are also images of a tomb in which an already much-mourned, much-loved, broken body lies waiting for its final anointing and arranging once the sun goes down on a sabbath day of enforced inaction.

On Holy Saturday, a moment of silence between street noise allows me to catch a whisper of a welling up of grief from two thousand years ago, from two minutes ago.  These are the choked sighs of the many who wait in limbo, stuck in the unreality of an existence where there is a felt absence when there should be a body; where the strange experience of being caught in the gap between a death and the opportunity for a final goodbye can only bring bewilderment and a sense of shifting ground where once there was steadiness.

The verbs this psalmist uses are telling, too:

seek

deliver

incline

rescue

be

lead

guide

take

deliver

shine

save

My own faith story can be woven from these words.  And in the waiting room that is Holy Saturday, I am invited into the tomb, into the Rock’s very presence, to chew them over once again, finding there arc, hearing their resonance, rearranging their pattern.

For whilst I might begin my prayers with a desperate cry of ‘incline your ear to me’, a headlong dash for safety and reassurance, a pleading for an end to my troubles, through the help of this psalmist I can end them in the surety of steadfast love.

With the help of this psalmist I can begin to understand that God’s face will shine on me – will shine on me again and again – does not ever even glance away from me, even in my darkest dark.

At such moments when I feel agony or I feel numb, I hear myself mumble repeatedly, ‘My times are in Your hands’ (Psalm 31.15).  The resulting heart-knowledge has literally been my salvation.

 

backyard refuge rocks. (iPhone image)

For all those who are willing to take the opportunity of the pause that is Holy Saturday to be alongside those who grieve, and most especially in times of pandemic, I offer these words by Christine Valters Paintner:

Do not rush to make meaning.

When you smile and say what purpose

this all serves, you deny grief

a room inside you,

you turn from thousands who cross

into the Great Night alone,

from mourners aching to press

one last time against the warm

flesh of their beloved,

from the wailing that echoes

in the empty room.

 

When you proclaim who caused this,

I say pause, rest in the dark silence

first before you contort your words

to fill the hollowed out cave,

remember the soil will one day

receive you back too.

Sit where sense has vanished,

control has slipped away,

with futures unravelled,

where every drink tastes bitter

despite our thirst.

 

When you wish to give a name

to that which haunts us,

you refuse to sit

with the woman who walks

the hospital hallway, hears

the beeping stop again and again,

with the man perched on a bridge

over the rushing river.

Do not let your handful of light

sting the eyes of those

who have bathed in darkness.

 

‘In a dark time’

Christine Valters Paintner

backyard refuge rocks (bl)

psalms for passiontide: Easter Eve vigil Psalm 136

Thank God! He deserves your thanks.

    His love never quits.

Thank the God of all gods,

    His love never quits.

Thank the Lord of all lords.

    His love never quits.

Thank the miracle-working God,

    His love never quits.

The God whose skill formed the cosmos,

    His love never quits.

The God who laid out earth on ocean foundations,

    His love never quits.

The God who filled the skies with light,

    His love never quits.

The sun to watch over the day,

    His love never quits.

Moon and stars as guardians of the night,

    His love never quits.

(Psalm 136. 1-9 The Message)

love never quits (bl)Love never quits.  Canon 7D. f9. 1/250. ISO 100.